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Barry Quirk: in his own words

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The best LGC columns from Kensington & Chelsea’s new interim chief

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Kensington & Chelsea RBC’s reputation lies in tatters as a result of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy. The charge against the council essentially boils down to two main points: how could such a wealthy borough have failed to ensure the safety of its most vulnerable residents and how could such a wealthy borough have responded so badly in the immediate aftermath of the blaze.

The only figure to have been forced from their job as a result of the fire so far is Nicholas Holgate, who was forced to resign as Kensington & Chelsea RBC town clerk on Wednesday following reported pressure from Sajid Javid.

The borough had to move quickly to appoint a replacement. It did that on Friday when it was announced that Lewisham LBC chief executive Barry Quirk had been appointed to the role, effectively chief executive, on an interim basis.

Mr Quirk is among the best known chief executives in the sector, having held the top job at Lewisham since 1993. Few other figures in local government share his experience and stature.

The former president of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers is a noted expert on running elections and an academic to boot, holding a PhD in social and political geography. His regular LGC columns provide some insight as to what manner of a public servant he is.

Mr Quirk began his career in local government in the 1970s in housing – aptly enough for the challenge he now faces – and the hardships he saw service users face then have stayed with him.

“My job was to interview people who said they were homeless and investigate whether the council… should accept them as homeless and place them in temporary accommodation – most of which was in dreadful bed and breakfasts,” Mr Quirk wrote in February 2014.

“It was grim… but even grimmer for those who were homeless. And it was emotionally draining. The intense plight of the families I dealt with over 35 years ago remains vivid in my memory even today.”

In the same article – appropriately considering the inevitable spotlight in his new, temporary role – Mr Quirk discussed the importance of the council chief executive:

”Some councils have recently dispensed with the role of the chief executive. They have focused exclusively on cost without giving proper regard to value. The case for professional management in local government somehow needs to be made afresh to a new generation of politicians. It is as if 40 years of corporate management in local government did not happen.The dangers described in the Bains report (1972) of disaggregated decision making and silo-style operations are as real today as then.”

Mr Quirk has not shied away from difficult issues in his columns. In September 2014, for instance, Mr Quirk wrote at length about the conflict councils face in meeting individuals’ and communities’ needs in light of the child sexual exploitation scandal in Rotherham and the threat of fundamentalist radicalisation in Birmingham.

Mr Quirk uses the piece to make a case for ”the principles of public ethics”. When his new council faces significant questions about its failure to support the most vulnerable, this passage gives an insight into his overall philosophy: ”For too long we have been transfixed by service management questions – how to “source” supply, markets and how to manage demand. These service challenges have taken us away from community governance, which is local government’s very purpose.”

Mr Quirk has floated many innovative ideas in his LGC columns. In October 2014, for example, Mr Quirk suggested that rather than the sector continuing to deliver social care via individual top-tier authorities, or forming combined authorities, social care could be delivered through “combined social care authorities”.

“Joint executive committees, with suitable governance and lean management could offer one way forward; one that doesn’t involve reorganisation but that which nonetheless could save substantial costs,” he wrote.

Mr Quirk’s experience of London specifically was also highlighted as a reason behind his appointment to Kensington & Chelsea and he has written for LGC on cities’ particular challenges at length. In this August 2016 column, Mr Quirk outlined four ways local government could help cities to thrive, especially in the context of Brexit.

One of his suggestions is particularly pertinent in his new borough, where many commentators have noted segregation between those of opulence and those of poverty.

”Cities are places of people with bewildering diversity of ethnicity, national origin, faith, identity and values. Your role is to help them build bridges with each other rather than for them to live in segmented communities. Harmony, tolerance, empathy, respect and the celebration of difference are the watchwords.”

Mr Quirk also once wrote that the role of the council chief executive is to apply “practical wisdom to real problems” and that “practical wisdom will always be needed”. That is perhaps most evident when dealing with a situation such as that in Kensington & Chelsea.

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